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Naratte: Mobile payments using sound waves

Before the vaunted NFC option arrives on mobile devices, start-up Naratte hopes to roll out payments that go ultrasonic.

All mobile phones have microphones and speakers. Hardly any have near-field communications chips. At least for now. And that's what a new company, Naratte, is planning on leveraging as it launches a technology that allows fast, secure, short-range, point-to-point communication over ultrasonic sound waves.

Compared with other device-to-device communication technology, its Zoosh tech is about as fast as NFC (the tap-to-communicate technology Google and other companies are pushing), but slower than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. However, like NFC, the "setup time" for communication is extremely fast--there's no waiting around for a handshake to be established between devices.

Naratte CEO Brett Paulson says, "We built an acoustic baseband in software," and he points to two big benefits to doing communication this way. First, it's cheap, since there's no additional hardware required on mobile devices. Big point-of-sale terminals, he says, can be retrofitted with microphones and speakers for about a dollar (they already have the input ports on their motherboards); smaller credit-card terminals might need a bit more hardware, but they can piggyback on the input ports that exist for barcode scanners.

Now playing: Watch this: Naratte demo

The other big benefit: Paulson showed a Zoosh demo using Java on a currently available feature phone. In other words, this NFC competitor can be rolled out to the world as a download on pretty much every mobile handset there is. NFC requires new phones (or for people to put stickers on their existing phones.)

In addition to being used for payments, through apps that connect to Paypal or other services, Zoosh-readable audio can also be embedded in media files. You could receive an MMS "coupon," and play it back at a point of purchase to score a discount. (In the demo that I videotaped, an MMS coupon played an audible jungle, but the actual Zoosh data was embedded in an inaudible-to-humans ultrasonic component.)

For financial transactions, there's point-to-point security built into the protocol. Paulson also points out that Zoosh gets very strong "elbow room security," just by the nature of using sound as a communication channel. High-frequency sound doesn't go far, and devices can use proximity (which is discernible through the software) as a factor in authentication.

This does look like neat technology, and the potential that it could get rolled out very quickly has advantages over NFC. But NFC is a freight train; it's got major backing from Google and financial institutions, and it has some practical advantages as well, including the fact that the user doesn't need to activate any software or play any files to use the phone for a transaction.

Paulson thinks the technologies can co-exist. "We think there are experiences on the phone that will work better," he says of Zoosh technology. Perhaps. But Zoosh has a challenging time ahead of it. First it has to convince users and retailers that it's a better technology than NFC, which isn't here yet. Then after NFC arrives, it'll have to reposition itself as a complimentary technology. It's very cool stuff, but hurdling the marketing challenges will be even more impressive.

Speaking of ultrasonics, see New technology beams power over sound waves.